Destroyer of the gods: A Review

Early Christians were strange people in the eyes of Roman citizens. That was due in large part to their distinctive practices. Larry Hurtado,[1] in his newest book Destroyer of the gods (Baylor University Press, 2016), presents a fascinating, two-fold argument. First, he contends that early Christian worship practices were markedly different from all other Roman religions, cults, and philosophical societies. Second, Hurtado argues that much of what comes to mind when we think of “religion” is a result of the influence of Christianity and was not true of Roman-era religions. In Hurtado’s words: “[E]arly Christianity represented a new kind of what we would call ‘religion,’ something that had not quite been seen before, and something that proved revolutionary in what ‘religion’ came to mean thereafter.”[2]

A New Kind of Faith

Christianity was, as Hurtado puts it, a new kind of religion in that it was not only monotheistic, but sectarian. Christianity was sectarian in the sense that Christians not only worshipped one God as the only true God, as Jews had always done, but demanded that Jesus be worshipped as God. “To refuse to recognize Jesus’ status was, in their eyes,” Hurtado writes, “blind disobedience to God.” Christianity was “making an exclusivist claim to which all others should give assent.”[3] That was unique to Christianity since religion in the Roman-era was pluralistic and polytheistic. Furthermore, Christians claimed that God was transcendent and incomparable with the traditional Roman-era gods, but they simultaneously claimed that this same God desired to have a relationship with his creation. Each of these factors proved unique to early Christianity.

A Different Identity

In the ancient world one’s religion was directly connected to one’s place of birth and ethnicity. “For example, if you were a Roman, in addition to your own particular family/household divinities, there was the traditional Roman pantheon: Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Venus, and the rest. If you were Greek, there was a corresponding pantheon: Zeus, Hera, Athena, and others. If you were Egyptian, there were the Gods of Egypt. And the same went for Syrians, Phrygians, Gauls and all other various peoples of the Roman world.”[4] But that was not the case for Christianity. Early Christianity was voluntary, rejected all other deities, and cut across all ethnic lines.[5]

Yet despite the fact that Christianity demanded exclusivity and that it cut across ethnic lines, it did not demand that non-Jewish adherents become Jews. This is exceedingly evident from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. To be clear, Paul and early Christians did insist upon Gentiles turning from idols to worshiping the one true God. But they were not forced to give up the entirety of their ethnic identity in order to embrace Christianity. Hurtado, echoing Paul to the Galatians, writes, “Through their faith in Christ, they [pagan Gentiles] were made additional, and fully valid, children of Abraham, while remaining non-Jews, ‘Gentiles.’”[6]

A “Bookish” Religion

Early Christianity was also, what Hurtado calls, “a bookish religion.” Not only did Christianity center on written texts such as the Old Testament, the Gospels, and the apostles’ letters, but early Christians produced an incredible amount of written literature.[7] Christianity valued the written word more than any other religion of its time. This can be demonstrated from their worship practices where portions of Scripture were read aloud, but also in the sheer volume of Christian literature written to explain and defend the Christian faith. Hurtado strikingly states: “In fact, to my knowledge, among the many other Roman-era religious groups, there is simply no analogy for this variety, vigor, and volume in Christian literary output.” He poetically explains, “For other religious movements of the day…there are the remains of numerous shrines and dedicatory inscriptions but no texts. For early Christianity, however, there are no known church structures or inscriptions…but there is this huge catalogue of texts.”[8]

In the Roman world there were authors whose entire lives were dedicated to writing, but their literary production was also financially underwritten so that they could focus entirely on the work. But figures such as the apostle Paul, whose literary output is stunning, often wrote on the run and from prison, which demonstrates the importance of the work.[9] Or, to return to the Gospels, which give us four accounts of the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus, there is no “comparable body of multiple works from ‘pagan’ authors, even about a regal or heroic figure.”[10] Early Christianity deeply valued the written word.

Hurtado draws a fascinating and remarkably relevant conclusion from the proliferation of Christian texts and their use in worship: “Romantic notions of a pervasive early Christian ‘orality’ that left little room or need for texts all rest on a body of ill-informed assumptions.”[11] There have been conversations and debates among evangelicals recently concerning the priority of historical events such as the resurrection over the writings of the apostles, which report them. But this sort of argument seems to imply or state outright that Christianity existed for a long period of time prior to or apart from the biblical texts we have today. Hurtado’s work undercuts all such arguments. “In short,” Hurtado writes, “‘textuality’ was central, and, from the outset, early Christianity was indeed ‘a bookish religion.’”[12]

A New Way to Live

There was a strong ethical component to early Christianity that was not so evident in other religions of the ancient world. For example, Hurtado cites the common Roman practices of infant exposure and abortion, which bore no stigma in the Roman world. It was perfectly legal for an unwanted baby, due to poverty or the sex of the child, to abandon the baby on a nearby trash heap to either die or be recovered by another who would often raise the child as a slave. Christians, as the Jews had also done, rejected the notion that a child could be abandoned or aborted for any reason.

Regarding sexual practices, it was common in the Roman world for men to commit sexual acts with slaves, prostitutes, and even young boys. These practices were seen as a way of avoiding adultery, which was specifically defined as “sex with another man’s wife or with a freeborn virgin.”[13] Roman wives, on the other hand, were judged very strictly in their sexual practices, which essentially equated to a double standard.

Early Christianity rejected this double standard. One did not avoid adultery by merely avoiding sexual acts with another man’s wife. Instead, early Christians condemned all sexual practice apart from one’s spouse as adultery. The Roman world expected that “honorable women” would only be sexually intimate with only their husbands whereas men could be honorable as long as they were not sexually intimate with another man’s wife. Early Christianity contended that honorable men and women must follow the same standard of faithfulness to their spouse.

Hurtado rightfully notes that Christian ethical practices were not always entirely unique to Christianity, although they often were. What was most distinctive about early Christianity is that ethical behavior was rooted not in shame, but in theological convictions.[14] Furthermore, Christianity expected the same behavior from both men and women from every social and economic level. There were no ethical loopholes in early Christianity due to gender or social status.

Conclusion

Destroyer of the gods is a fascinating book that really anyone could read and enjoy if interested in the topic. But the argument of the book is worth considering even if you don’t read the book. Early Christianity was radically distinct from its culture. But could we say the same for Christianity in the West today? Are we more interested in biblical fidelity or cultural assimilation? It’s clear that the early Christians were more concerned about the former than the latter.

Hurtado notes the importance of distinctiveness for early Christianity as well as Christianity today. I leave you with his assessment:

Classic liberal forms of Christianity have often been concerned to align themselves with the dominant culture, affirming its values, even shifting in beliefs and practices markedly to do so. But the danger in this case can be that, unless there are also distinctive features (and demands) of being an adherent of a group, people cannot see the point of becoming one, or the worth of remaining one.[15]

____________________

 

[1] Larry Hurtado is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Language and Theology in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Hurtado has written numerous books on the New Testament and early Christianity.

[2] Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the god: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), 76. Connected to the argument that Christianity was a new kind of religion is an implicit and sometimes explicit rejection of the popular and scholarly argument that Christianity simply imported much from Roman-era religion.

[3] Ibid., 70.

[4] Ibid., 78.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 101.

[7] For the sake of our readers, it is worth mentioning that Hurtado does not seem to affirm a plenary-verbal view of inspiration, as he rejects the Pauline authorship of 1 and 2 Timothy. Ibid., 106-107.

[8] Ibid., 119-120 (Italics added)

[9] Ibid., 129.

[10] Ibid., 123.

[11] Ibid., 116.

[12] Ibid., 141.

[13] Ibid., 165.

[14] Ibid., 171.

[15] Ibid., 7-8.

Author: Jesse Owens

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